Some friends are hanging out at their neighborhood drinking establishment and chatting. One says, "Oh, you should read this breast book I just finished."
To which a male friend responds, with a nudge and wink, "Ooh, breast book, huh? I could show you a breast book ..."
Laughs all around.
"No, really," responds the book-touting friend, "the breast is a super-fascinating gland."
Which sends the male friend into fits of retching. "Omigod! Please stop saying gland! Gross!"
Observe the power of the breast. This is what Florence Williams, a University of Montana creative writing graduate, does with intelligence, humor and plenty of solid research in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.
The many breast-related issues Williams tackles in nearly 300 pages include the way society views breasts (mainly as sexual objects); the unique attributes of mammals; the relationship between highly responsive glands (yes, glands) like the breast and the habits of cancer cells; the promiscuity of estrogen receptors, ancient contraceptives and endocrine disrupting plastics; the mysterious substance known as breast milk; and the evolution of baby formula and the birth of the La Leche League, which she describes as "alternately inspirational and infuriatingly dogmatic."
In search of breast-related knowledge, Williams gleans information from a host of fascinating characters, including one of the first human recipients of breast implants (the original test case was a dog), a father-son team of scientists who study male reactions to pictures of naked ladies, a group of male Marines suffering from breast cancer, and another father-son team, where one runs a human milk bank while the other maps breasts with technology originally developed for mining engineers.
Williams herself plays a prominent role in the narrative as she recounts her own breastfeeding trials and successes, poses as a potential buyer of implants, travels the globe in search of mammary mavens and areolar authorities and attempts to lower her "chemical body burden" by foregoing such creature comforts as bubble bath and cheese and avoiding contact with automobile upholstery.
This personal approach allows the author to inhabit the role of seeker, to explore various sides of politically charged conversations, and to withhold judgment in a way that feels natural. At times Williams' voice feels a bit too casual for the subject matter ("Hello, cancer... Bummer"). But it is in moments like this, when at its most slangy and forced, that she shows her anxiety about serious issues, like the ubiquity of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and the association of older motherhood with aggressive forms of cancer, in a way that feels relatable and avoids sanctimony or alarmism. For those who feel that Williams treats a broad range of complex issues with too light of a touch, 47 pages of endnotes provide an open invitation to delve deeper.
The few minor factual mistakes in Breasts should have been caught by a more diligent copy editor. For example, pneumonia is not a bacteria: It is a condition sometimes caused by certain bacteria, some of which have names ending in pneumoniae. But this is nitpicking, and Williams does not claim to be a scientist; rather, she is a journalist with a scientific background and a confident grasp of issues spanning several disciplines. She makes her subject accessible while avoiding the common blunder of presuming that scientific work has the power to definitively prove, disprove or provide simple answers to complex questions.
The breastfeeding debate is a good example of the type of thorny question addressed here, and Williams does an admirable job presenting the politics, science, accusations and fears that are attendant on if and how long mothers lactate. Readers will feel free to make their own assessments, but certain facts stand out. While the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding U.S. children might be comparable to using formula, it's a very different story in developing countries. We still know next to nothing about many potentially beneficial components of mothers' milk. It is also striking that the Human Microbiome Project neglected to include breast milk in its area of study, despite the fact that as many as 600 different species of bacteria can be found in a single milk sample, most of which are as yet unknown to science. Where do our much-lauded gut bacteria come from if not from our food?
In her own highly personal, self-deprecating way, by writing "an environmental history of a body part," Williams continues the legacy of environmental activist (and breast cancer victim) Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring now reads almost uncomfortably earnest and lyrical. Carson's approach was in tune with the culture of the 1960s, while Williams, in her refusal to be "a total killjoy," is better suited to the sensibilities of an era in which ironic distance is the sugar with which we prefer to wash down our medicine.